A Gathering of Eagles

When it is 95 degrees, the two guys you don’t envy are Santa Claus and the man in the bomb disposal helmet and gear.

There were a couple hundred of us, mostly old guys, hiding from the heat by standing under the trees on the Capitol Mall. What distinguished us from the 10,000 or so other marchers resting under the trees beside us was that they were all under 18-years-old and wearing Boy Scout uniforms, while we ranged in age up to seventy-one and were mostly wearing white shirts and khaki trousers.

We were the Eagles, designated as the closing contingent/grand finale of the 100th anniversary parade of the Boy Scouts of America -- and our task was to march with the parade down Madison, turn right on 7th, then left for about a mile down Constitution Avenue ... all the while trying to look like exemplars of that most famous of boyhood achievements:  Eagle Scout.

Towards that end, other than the white shirt/khakis ensemble, we were asked to wear symbols of our profession. Hence the heavily sweating, white-bearded guy in the Santa outfit. “It’s all velvet,” he said with dismay, holding an ice pack to his neck.  And miserable as he was, it must have been nothing compared to the military officer in full camouflage fatigues who, just before we formed up, put on his thick, heavy Hurt Locker ensemble, complete with massive helmet.

There were others. An Army colonel in full dress uniform and ribbons. A doctor in his white smock. A couple younger guys in their old Scout uniforms, both with more than 100 merit badges each on their sashes. An old Scout in a uniform that must have been from the 1940s. Even the Bermudan diplomat, with his blazer, tie, red shorts, and knee socks, looked visibly uncomfortable. As for myself, all I could manage to represent my thirty years as a journalist was a satchel over my shoulder and a MEDIA identification card around my neck.

My 14-year-old was a couple hundred yards down the Mall with Troop 466, Sunnyvale, California. With me were two other middle-aged Eagles, one a Silicon Valley senior executive, the other a software engineer who had been a Scout (and Knight of Dunamis) with me when we were my son’s age.

Exactly why a group of Northern California boys and their dads were in Washington, D.C., in high summer taking part in a parade is a bit complicated. Ever since my oldest, 19-year-old son became a Scout I have (like many former Scouts) re-involved myself with Scouting after a quarter-century long hiatus. My self-assigned task has been to work with the older boys, creating unique experiences to keep them involved with Scouting as they finished their Eagle awards. Towards that end, over the last few years I’ve led them on a 192-mile hike across northern England and on a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail in Oklahoma.

This year, the summer adventure -- which I am still in the midst of as I write this -- is Civil War related. We’ve traveled back to D.C. to be part of the parade (the first for the BSA since 1937), then traveled up to Leesburg. Here, as part of Eagle service projects for two of our Scouts, we’ve worked on the restoration of Ball’s Bluff battlefield and federal cemetery, the latter the second smallest in the nation. This has meant, for one team, three days of stacking or chipping a couple dozen fallen trees as they are chain-sawed, and clearing trails of overgrowth; and for the other, the solemn work of cleaning headstones, weeding and seeding a new lawn, and installing a flagpole -- all done in near silence. (You can read about it here.)

From here, we will put on accurate Civil War uniforms, travel to nearby Morven Park, and spend three days in a full Civil War immersion experience -- camping, marching, shooting, campfires, etc. -- courtesy of volunteers from the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry re-enactors. We’ll also help in the restoration of some winter huts used by soldiers after the Ball’s Bluff battle. The biggest challenge facing the 71st Penn will be preparing us in the traditional manual of arms in preparation for our final test:  conducting, in our Civil War uniforms, the flag raising ceremony Monday morning at the National Jamboree in front of an audience that could number in the thousands.

But, before everything else, we had to survive the parade.

After a couple hours of waiting, and at about the time my son and his troop were completing the march, a young man with a bullhorn got us on our feet and into formation on the street. The heat and humidity was overwhelming -- and in the few minutes we waited there, the hot asphalt was already beginning to burn through the soles of our shoes.